Boris Johnson, Barbra Streisand, Thunderbirds, and the British media machine

Last weekend, The Times of London, a Murdoch-owned paper in the UK, sent out an early print edition containing a(nother) damaging story about Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who—the story claimed—wanted to hire his wife, Carrie, into a high-paid government job in 2018 when he was foreign minister and married to someone else, only for aides to thwart the plan after another lawmaker walked in on Johnson and Carrie in a “compromising situation” in Johnson’s office. The story was relatively short and tucked away on page five of the paper, next to a furniture ad and underneath an item about a picnic-spoiling turkey vulture. (“Keep calm and carrion.”) Nor was it especially new; indeed, the story principally served to corroborate claims in a book that Michael Ashcroft, a lord and longtime donor to Johnson’s party, published earlier this year.

Then the story disappeared. It failed to feature in subsequent print editions of The Times and never ran on the paper’s website; meanwhile, the Mail, a rival right-wing title, wrote up The Times’ reporting, then deleted it. Of course, the story didn’t literally disappear; photos of the printed article quickly started to circulate online alongside increasingly pointed questions as to what had happened to it. The New European—a paper that launched in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote (in which Johnson was instrumental) to, in its own words, “rebalance the right-wing extremes of much of the UK national press”—asked questions as well; later, the story of the missing story would spread to The Guardian and the BBC, before vaulting across the Atlantic to the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, which called the whole business, “even by British standards, a juicy mess.” Suddenly, a page-five story had become an international press-freedom incident. Various observers suggested that it was a textbook example of the “Streisand effect,” the phenomenon, named for Barbra Streisand, that occurs when an effort to suppress information online only increases public awareness of that information. The Johnson story was quickly added to the Streisand effect’s Wikipedia page.

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Neither The Times nor the Mail explained why it had removed the story. Simon Walters, its author, who formerly worked for the Mail and contributed the story to The Times as a freelancer, publicly stood by its accuracy, claiming that he had contacted its subjects and heard no on-the-record denial; Johnson’s wife has since issued a denial, but The Guardian then confirmed the story with a source. Sources at The Times, in a state of bafflement, suggested to the latter paper that a top editor made the call, possibly following a “high-level intervention.” By Monday, Johnson’s office had confirmed that it had asked for the story to be retracted. But it remained unclear why The Times had complied. Reports circulated of legal issues and threats—British libel law can be tough for the press—but a government source denied that officials had mentioned legal action to The Times, and The Guardian reported that “no superinjunction or specific legal issue” was at issue. (In British law, superinjunctions not only bar a given outlet from reporting a given story, but also bar any reporting on the injunction itself.) Longtime Johnson critics, in particular, charged that what we were actually witnessing was the incestuous relationship between Britain’s political and media elites in action. As Tim Walker of the New European put it to the Post, “Journalists and politicians in our country are too cozy.”

As all this was unfolding, Johnson remained under pressure on a number of other fronts. Three weeks ago, I wrote that a scandal about lockdown-busting parties in Johnson’s offices was tightening around him; since then, Johnson was subjected to—and only narrowly survived—a confidence vote among party allies, his top ethics adviser resigned, and his plan to deport thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda (literally) failed to take off amid legal challenges. (In its later weekend print editions, The Times replaced Walters’s story with an article about Britain’s interior minister branding the legal impediments to the Rwanda plan as “racist.”)

Then, at the beginning of this week, Britain’s rail workers went on strike over their pay and conditions, leading to crippling train cancellations across the country. As with the “Partygate” and Rwanda stories, right-wing papers that generally support Johnson helped him to counterattack. The Mail’s front page referred to the strikes as a “plague.” The Sun’s regretted to announce that Britain was “returning to the 1970s.”

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In addition to tying Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, to the strikes, various right-wingers sought to demonize Mick Lynch, the head of a leading British transit union; The Sun put a photo of Lynch on its 1970s-themed front page. This was to be expected. What’s remarkable is that Lynch pushed back and has become an unlikely media star in the process, with a string of his TV interviews going internationally viral. When a Sky News anchor asked Lynch how striking workers would respond to others crossing their picket line, Lynch replied, exasperatedly, “We will picket them,” adding: “Do you not know how a picket line works?” (The anchor tweeted that Lynch had become “flustered”; various observers said it was the other way around.) When an anchor on ITV asked Lynch whether or not he’s a Marxist—“because, if you are a Marxist, then you’re into revolution”—Lynch laughed and dismissed the question as “twaddle.” When Piers Morgan asked Lynch why his Facebook profile photo shows The Hood from Thunderbirds given that the latter is “an evil, criminal, terrorist mastermind,” Lynch noted his physical resemblance to the character. “So you’re not denying that you’re comparing yourself to The Hood?” Morgan asked. “If it was a bunch of flowers, would I be a hippie?” Lynch asked back.

Amid all the clapbacks, Lynch stayed calm, insisting with studied bemusement that he’s just a “working-class bloke” who wants to talk about the issues affecting his union’s members. Praise for his media skills has poured forth in liberal and left-wing outlets: the New Statesman declared him the winner of a “media war,” while Jacobin’s Meagan Day said that Lynch should “teach a class in responding to antagonism, diversions, and nonsense from the press.” Strikingly, praise has also come from less-expected quarters. The Spectator—an arch-conservative magazine that was led for years by Boris Johnson—ran an effusive article under the headline “In praise of Mick Lynch,” with Mark Solomons, a former industrial correspondent for The Sun, extolling Lynch for “making mincemeat” of his foes and “dominating” the media.

For years, it’s the Boris Johnsons of the world who have dominated Britain’s media—in print, at least—and its narratives. As I reported in a 2019 profile, Johnson’s “reporting” as a journalist in the nineties helped sow the seeds that led to Brexit, while his more recent columns for The Spectator and the Telegraph helped him to become prime minister—and he has long been a consummate media subject, too, courting attention with his disheveled mien and entertaining quotes, sometimes offensive, often in Latin. This week, Lynch seems to have beaten Johnson at something like his own game—elevating his profile and using it to expose news consumers, in plainspoken tones, to perspectives they don’t always hear in a media ecosystem where working-class representation is at an all-time low. None of this represents a media sea change: right-wingers continue to cover for Johnson; union leaders can continue to expect puppet-adjacent smears. But Lynch has shown that their message can cut through.

Johnson, meanwhile, is under immense political pressure again. Yesterday, voters in two seats in very different parts of the country went to the polls in special elections that were triggered by one lawmaker in Johnson’s party watching pornography in Parliament (he said he was searching for a tractor website) and a court jailing another for child sexual abuse. Johnson’s party lost both seats by wide margins. In the early hours of this morning, the party’s chair quit just before he was scheduled to do a media round, leaving behind a resignation letter that didn’t explicitly rebuke Johnson but practically begged reporters to take it that way. Johnson’s candidate in one of the special elections (the tractor one) reportedly locked herself in a dance studio that had been set up for media interviews and refused to talk to the press.

Even when he was at a high ebb politically, Johnson often sought to dodge the press; ahead of the 2019 election, which his party won with a huge majority, he (allegedly) hid in a fridge to avoid an interview with Morgan. The big difference now is that his efforts at narrative wizardry—not least his demand for the Times retraction—are falling flat with the public if not actively backfiring. This morning, a source in Johnson’s party blamed its special-election defeats, in part, on the media obsessing over scandal stories at the expense of substantive issues. The source also insisted that Johnson himself wasn’t blaming the media. Ultimately, he can’t credibly do so, having fed—and fed off—the worst excesses of British media culture for so long. If anyone has forced a reckoning with substance this week, it’s Lynch. Thunderbirds are go. Johnson might have to.

Below, more on British media and retractions:

  • Big Banks: Recently, the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr prevailed in a libel suit brought against her by Arron Banks, a top Brexit donor whose links to the Russian state Cadwalladr had questioned; a judge ruled that her remarks were in the public interest. Afterward, Cadwalladr wrote for The Observer about the profound “personal, physical, psychological and professional toll” that the case took on her, and the need to reform British libel law. “We cannot and must not allow another journalist to go through this. Not for the sake of their sanity but for the health of our democracy,” she wrote. “Because this is not democracy. It’s oligarchy. And Banks v Cadwalladr needs to be the last time these obscene laws are used against a journalist in this way.”
  • An international press threat: Last week, Britain’s interior minister (of critics of the Rwanda deportation plan are racist fame) approved the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the US, where he will face charges that risk criminalizing routine acts of journalism. On Wednesday, fifteen representatives from various media groups gathered in Geneva and called for Assange to be freed in the name of press freedom, while also calling on Swiss authorities to offer Assange safe harbor. Pierre Ruetschi, of the Swiss Press Club, warned that “democracy is being taken hostage.”
  • A local press threat: Recently, a communications official in the English city of Bristol shut down a reporter working on a BBC-funded “local democracy” program after he asked why Marvin Rees, the city’s Labour mayor, flew to Canada to deliver a brief ted talk on climate change. The journalist and a colleague on the same program reported that they were subsequently banned from press conferences; officials denied this characterization, but a range of local outlets, including ITV’s regional affiliate, have now said they will boycott future pressers as an act of solidarity. Press Gazette has more.
  • Meanwhile, in France: Le Point, a French magazine, retracted a story accusing two left-wing lawmakers of exploiting an undocumented domestic worker that turned out to be based on fake text messages. Le Point’s editor apologized to the lawmakers, who are now demanding that the author of the story be fired. The lawmakers’ lawyer said that they are prepared to take legal action on grounds including defamation and identity theft.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: 16/06/2022. London, UK. Secretary-General of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers MICK LYNCH arrives at the RMT headquarters in Euston, London. Next week half of all rail lines will be closed when thousands of workers walk out across Britain on 21, 23 and 25 June. Photo credit: Ben Cawthra/Sipa USA **NO UK SALES**(Sipa via AP Images)